21st-century Mr Fox

Hollywood

quirky A still from ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’ The last time I saw Wes Anderson, seven years ago, he was wearing a tight, beige corduroy suit. He’s still wearing it today. On the previous occasion, though — a Q&A for his film The Royal Tenenbaums — it was accessorised with plastic-framed glasses and a preppy scarf. Now the glasses have gone, there’s a stripey tie, and the hair is longer and more luxuriant. He looks less geeky, as if he’s been spending more time outdoors. Does he go hiking in his corduroy suit, perhaps? “I rely on corduroy,” Anderson admits. “I’ve been here in London a week — this is all I’ve got.” It’s not the same suit, though, he stresses. “They last a couple of years. I have a guy who makes them specially for me. They’re very inexpensive and I can just call him up and say, ‘Can I have another one please?’”

Every director needs a trademark. Anderson is a giant compendium of trademarks. His movies have varied in scope and setting, but they’re all of a type. Whether it’s a broken family of overachievers (The Royal Tenenbaums), a morose ocean explorer (The Life Aquatic) or an Indian train odyssey (The Darjeeling Limited), you’ll find the same blend of urbane comedy, regular players (Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Anjelica Huston, Jason Schwartzman), and obsessive attention to design details such as lettering (Futura, always), decor, soundtrack (retro but not too obscure), or costume (vintage Adidas, Lacoste, and, of course, corduroy).

His latest, Fantastic Mr Fox, features most of the above, and it should come as no surprise to see that its hero sports a natty double-breasted version of Anderson’s beloved suit, tastefully accessorised with a few ears of wheat in the breast pocket. More surprising is the fact that Anderson has made a children’s movie. It’s based on Roald Dahl’s novel, of course — the simple tale of a cocky fox pursued by three determined farmers.

Anderson himself seems pretty surprised he’s made the film. He’s wanted to do it for a good 10 years, he says, since it was the first book he remembers ever owning. “I grew up loving it and somewhere along the way I thought this one should be mine.” But he imagined it as a side project he could oversee while making another movie. “I thought I’d do the script and record the actors and design it, then other people would just... animate it. And they’d send it to me and I’d say ‘good’ and maybe tinker with it a bit. But that’s not the way it ended up happening at all.”

Henry Selick, who animated the imaginary sea creatures in The Life Aquatic (and had previously adapted Dahl’s James And The Giant Peach), was lined up to do Fantastic Mr Fox, but then he went off to make Coraline instead. “And I got more interested in the details of it,” Anderson continues. “So in fact, for the last two years, my whole life has been Fantastic Mr Fox every day. But I’m happy about that because this is the only way I could feel like this is really one of my movies.”

There’s no mistaking Anderson’s touch. With the help of that compendium of trademarks (including new additions George Clooney and Meryl Streep as Mr and Mrs Fox), and some gloriously old-school stop-motion animation, Anderson fleshes out Dahl’s basic story into something more like The Royal Tenenbaums mixed with Ocean’s 11 and Bagpuss.
For a detail addict like Anderson, animation must be the movie equivalent of crack cocaine. Here’s a world where everything needs designing from scratch, and every frame is a carefully composed still photograph — 61,920 of them in the whole movie. It was all made in Britain, and many of the film’s details — the furniture, the interiors, the buildings — came from Gipsy House, Dahl’s Buckinghamshire home. Anderson had been in touch with Dahl’s estate since 2000, when he first thought about making the movie, and Dahl’s widow, Felicity, let Anderson and his co-writer Noah Baumbach stay at Gipsy House to write the movie.

They basically photographed everything in it while they were there and had it all copied in miniature for the movie sets. So there’s a distinctly British feel to it, despite the fact the animals all have American accents and the dastardly humans are English — a move that’s sure to set whiskers twitching in the home counties. Is there a buried political subtext to the movie? Not really. As Anderson points out, real animals in England don’t have British accents either since they can’t actually speak.

People watch Anderson’s movies precisely because they’re not about the real, grown-up world. That heightened, self-referential, beautifully-designed reality that’s so alluring in his films is only really possible in hermetic environments: schools, homes, ships, trains, underground. “I guess that’s what happens if you’re going to try to invent something with the way the movie is designed and where it’s set. Often it means you can’t stray too far off the set because it’s not like that any more over there,” he laughs, pointing across the room.

That’s almost an admission that style triumphs over substance, but then Anderson’s style has shaped American indie cinema for much of the past decade. His trademarks have been ripped off to the point of becoming cliches. He’s awkward about acknowledging his influence. “I’ve never ha... I don’t think that... um,” he stammers, trying to work out a way of not sounding too big-headed. “It’s certainly a nice idea to think that... one could have...” He goes on to list innumerable film-makers he has been influenced by himself, from Bergman to Soderbergh to Almodóvar to Spike Lee. “Stanley Kubrick is the one I think about now,” he says. Kubrick’s favourite font was also Futura.

Anderson’s stories are full of adults who act like children and children who act like adults, and at the moment he seems to be somewhere between the two. It would be interesting to see him take on heavier, more ‘mature’, Kubrick-like themes, but instead he seems to have come running back to the security of the playpen with Fantastic Mr Fox Perhaps that is a form of growing up. Having led the hipster generation into reluctantadulthood, he’s now making movies they can take their children to. Despite his insistence that Mr Fox is based on Dahl himself, it’s tempting to also read him as the director’s corduroy-veiled alter ego. Mr Fox is a flamboyant charmer, an impulsive dreamer who doesn’t accept his position in life, a risk-taker who’s got some growing up to do. Like Anderson he’s also approaching middle age, thinking about moving up the real estate ladder and settling down.

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